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7/29/2022

9 Kinds of Assistive Technologies that Anyone Building a Digital Product Should Know About

a universal sign of accessibility - a white side-on drawing of a stick-figure person in a wheelchair against a dark blue background

Digital accessibility is about making sure that everyone can use a digital product no matter who they are and how they experience the world. While much of that involves the user interface and design-related choices, there are many users who access the digital world via assistive technologies of different sorts, and it’s worthwhile to have some idea of what these technologies that interact with digital products do and how they help their users. Here are nine examples of the technologies you should know about:

  1. Screen Readers

screen reader icon

 

A screen reader is a software application that runs on a computer or smartphone and renders text and image content as speech or braille output. They’re most often used by people with complete or partial blindness but can be useful for people with learning disabilities as well as illiterate people. They can only read digital content, however, so PDFs can present a problem in many cases, even when screen readers are used alongside optical character recognition technology[1]. If you’re developing a website or application, it’s important to make sure that it’s compatible with screen readers. Screen readers that produce braille output are used in conjunction with braille embossers.

 

  1. Braille and Braille Embossers

 

A hand scanning over a page with braille on it

 

Though it is so low-tech we often forget about it, braille is one of the most basic forms of assistive technology available for blind people. It is a system of raised dots that correspond to letters, numbers, and punctuation so that blind people can read by feeling the text tactically instead of seeing it visually. Braille embossers are printers for braille.

 

  1. Refreshable Braille Display

 

A close-up of a hand hovering over a refreshable braille display's output.

 

Refreshable braille displays, sometimes called braille terminals, are essentially computers for users who cannot use the screen monitor. They interact with screen reading software to convert the content that would typically be on the screen into braille characters that are displayed to the user through round-tipped pins that are raised through holes in a flat surface.

Input can be done through conventional QWERTY keyboards, through pure braille keyboards, or through special six-keyed keyboards modelled after the Perkins Brailler[2]. There are many versions of braille terminals, some that are input-only or output only, depending on the user’s needs. This is an alternative to a braille embosser with many advantages – it’s far more portable, it conserves paper, and it's faster from beginning to end of the process. It too is reliant on compatibility with screen readers to work.

 

  1. Screen Magnifiers

Screen magnifying software being used to magnify the G and O 2x on Google's homepage.

 

Screen magnifiers are what they sound like: software that allows the user to enlarge the content on the screen. They are useful for users with visual impairments. Many computers and smartphones have them built in to their GUI (Graphical User Interface), largely as a result of an awareness of the needs of people with visual impairments.

 

  1. Large-print and Tactile Keyboards

A black large-print keyboard with white lettering

 

Large-print and tactile keyboards are keyboards wherein the characters are printed largely on the keys and/or there are tactile features included to help users with low vision type.

 

  1. Wearable Technology for Visual Impairments

A profile view of a person using OrCam technology attached to their glasses. The OrCam and glasses are in focus and the person's face is blurred.

 

Wearable technology for visual impairments is continually developing. There are a range of devices out there, such as cameras that output verbal descriptions of the objects in front of them (OrCam, featured in the above picture), high-contrast screens that sit in front of a low-vision user’s eyes, and even visual aid sensors that use an electrode array on the user’s tongue to send impulses to the visual cortex of the user’s brain to simulate sight. And more are surely on their way! Other wearable technologies include hearing aids, prosthetics, and biofeedback devices.

 

  1. Assistive Listening Devices

Assistive Listening Device Icon

 

These are essentially high-tech hearing aids. They allow users to pinpoint the audio source they prefer to amplify and broadcast it to them wirelessly, allowing the user to choose the volume settings as well. They work to eliminate background noise or unpleasant feedback for the user. Similar technology can also be used to amplify phone calls for users with partial hearing but who are not completely deaf.

 

  1. Augmentative and Alternative Communication aids

A child's hand hovers over a touch screen icon on a speech generating device

 

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aid is a term that encompasses all technology that assists users to produce or comprehend language through written and verbal mediums. They can be as low-tech as a board of pictures a user can indicate from to convey their message, and they range to speech-generating devices, like the one famously used by the late Stephen Hawking.

The way speech generating devices are accessed by the user depends on their needs, but common methods include direct access, through keyboards or screens (these put the user in physical contact with the system – hence, “direct”), and indirect access, wherein the user manipulates an object that interacts with the device. Indirect access methods commonly include joysticks, mice that are controlled by the user’s head motion, optical head pointers, infrared pointers, light pointers, eye tracking, and switch access scanners – devices that visually scan the objects in a selection set by announcing each item aloud to the user while the user controls the device with switch technology.

 

  1. Memory Aids

Hands are drawing a picture on a piece of paper using a smart pen, which displays it on a nearby tablet digitally.

 

Memory aids are a type of Assistive Technology for Cognition (ATC) for people with cognitive disabilities that make either memory processing or recall difficult. The aids can be software, such as calendar alerts, or hardware, like digital voice recorders, or some combination of the two. Because these are so useful to everyone, disabled or not, it’s easy to forget about them in the context of assistive technology, but they do in fact have great utility in that arena, and it’s worth considering whether your product is easily used with them.

 

And That’s Not All

This list is by no means exhaustive, and more technology is constantly coming out, so there will doubtless be more to keep up with, but as of this point in time, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with these nine kinds of assistive tech as a starting point. It’s eye-opening to see how much technology can help people, and it’s important to comply with web accessibility guidelines so that these devices can continue to help people.

 

 

 

[1] These are software solutions that recognize characters in scanned documents or in other cases where the content of a document is not digitized properly for whatever reason. They can be inaccurate if the quality of the PDF is low.

[2] The Perkins Brailler was the first of its kind. You can read more about it here.

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